George Ferguson is Bristol’s directly elected mayor (DEM). The most controversial policy he has introduced so far is the introduction of parking restrictions radiating out from Bristol city centre. In a bid to cut traffic and boost public transport use, he is using the powers available to him to address an issue that was amongst the most high profile in the election campaign: transport. This policy has echoes of Ken Livingstone’s introduction of the congestion charge in London. In much the same way as Ferguson, Livingstone was cautioned against introducing what was then seen as a foolhardy and unpopular policy.
Ferguson is under considerable attack from many in Bristol as a result of this policy. Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of this approach, the implication, either explicit or implicit from his critics, is that he is subverting the democratic process. The letters page of the local paper contains references to him as a dictator, and the paper itself has run a survey which appears to show low levels of support for the parking scheme amongst Bristolians. The message is that he is not listening to local people, and that he is out of touch with what they want. Consequently, they argue that the scheme should be dropped.
Yet these sorts of criticisms miss the point. Part of the debate around the introduction of DEMs in English local government – and in Bristol – relates to their decisiveness. The argument goes that DEMs, backed by a direct mandate to govern, and given a four year term, can take difficult decisions and develop radical policies for the benefit of their local areas in a way that indirectly elected leaders might find more difficult. As the Plain English Guide to the Localism Act put it:
…elected mayors can provide democratically accountable strong leadership which is able to instigate real change for the benefit of our largest cities. Mayors will be clearly identifiable as the leader of the city and will have a unique mandate to govern…
Bristol residents voted in favour of introducing a DEM in a referendum. They also chose Ferguson to lead the city. DEMs are the epitome of local representative democracy, where citizens choose directly the city leader. Drawing on democratic theory there are broadly three forms of representation. First, the representative can do what the electorate wants – s/he is a ‘delegate’, enacting the wishes of their constituents. This form is hard to reproduce in a large city with diverse communities demonstrating different wants, needs, and opinions. The second form is that of ‘party soldier’, where the representative acts in line with the party under whose banner they stood. Ferguson is an independent mayor without a party, and therefore unable to be a party soldier. Hence that only leaves for him one form of representation, that of ‘trustee’ – where the representative uses their own judgement in decision-making.
In a recent exchange between Ferguson and one of his constituents, Ferguson articulated exactly this form of representation. In defending himself against a charge of not listening to local people, he said ‘I was elected to do what I think is right’. He also put it in even blunter terms, which captured many headlines. In doing so, in addition to making clear his preference for the trustee form of decision-making, he resurrected a famous figure in Bristol’s history, Edmund Burke, MP for Bristol between 1774 and 1780. Burke, in his speech to electors upon his election stated:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
This forms the defence for Ferguson’s style of decision-making, and the basis of the role of the DEM in city governance. The mayor is elected to introduce decisive leadership. This is, of course, not to say that there need not be an effective system of citizen participation in the city – of course there should be. And also the onus is on the mayor to engage and listen to his or her constituents in a multitude of ways. Nevertheless, the pivot of democracy for DEMs is the ability for citizens to have their say by voting them out of office at election time, an opportunity unavailable in other systems.
Here a note of caution for Ferguson can be heard from one of his predecessors, George Micklewright, Leader of Bristol City Council in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He pointed out that after Burke ‘had lectured the electors of Bristol about the importance of his judgment, they decided they had had quite enough of this arrogant sod and they gave him the boot’. This opportunity is one that is also available to Bristolians for Ferguson. It wasn’t available to Bristolians for Micklewright, as he was elected as Leader of the Council by a handful of councillors, and only ceased to be leader when his ward constituents – a fraction of the population of the city – voted him out of office.
At election time, the citizens of Bristol shall have the opportunity to give their verdict on Ferguson in the same way that Londoners gave their verdict on Livingstone after the introduction of the congestion charge. Londoners gave Livingstone another four year mandate.